Cars or people

Published: Sunday, December 23, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 21, 2012 at 2:56 p.m.

A decade ago I embarked on a tour of Florida cities that had seemingly done the impossible: They brought their decaying downtowns back to life by making cars behave themselves.

Mostly they did it by turning overbuilt four-lane urban speedways into graceful two-lane boulevards; widening sidewalks, adding on-street parking, attractive streetscaping and employing a variety of other “traffic calming” techniques in the process.

My favorite example was Hollywood, where I grew up. When I was a teenager, downtown was a dead zone of empty storefronts and urban blight. Now it’s a beehive of activity that looks like a mini-South Beach.

And it draws visitors (aka customers) like ... well, like bees to honey.

But Hollywood was only one example. Stuart, Palm Beach, Clearwater, Winter Park, Delray Beach and Fort Pierce are just some of the cities that revitalized their urban business and commercial cores by making their streets more walkable, bikable, busable and shoppable; and by making cars behave themselves.

Just this past weekend, Jill and I spent a delightful weekend in downtown Dunedin, where the traffic is very well-behaved, indeed.

The Pinellas Trail cuts through the heart of Dunedin, and an astounding number of restaurants, cafes, breweries, retail shops and art galleries are doing a brisk business off all the foot-and-cycling traffic.

Frankly, Gainesville’s downtown looks anemic by comparison.

At the time of my Florida downtown revitalization tour, in 2002, we were engaged in a heated conversation about making University Avenue Gainesville’s “signature” street by employing similar traffic-calming techniques.

I remember talking to a city planner in Fort Pierce about it. And knowing something about our city — having worked here briefly — he predicted that University Avenue’s transformation probably wouldn’t happen.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because everybody’s very bright, and they all love to argue,” he said.

He was right. We argued our “signature” street to death.

So now we’re arguing about putting south Main Street on a “road diet,” by continuing the traffic-calming re-engineering that has already begun to transform Main Street north.

By the way, I ride my bike on Main Street nearly every day. And if narrowing has really produced the kind of gridlock I’ve been reading about in our letters section, I haven’t noticed it.

It’s clear that downtown Gainesville’s future growth is going to be to the south. With Depot park taking shape, the coming Cade Museum, the city’s budding Power District and the ripple-effect of Innovation Square, we have the opportunity to reinvent a decidedly blighted south Main Street corridor.

But that won’t happen as long as south Main functions as a high-speed funnel to move cars through and out of Gainesville’s center as smoothly as possible.

Our choice is clear:

We can have a fast and efficient car conduit out of town.

Or, we can have a vibrant downtown where people want to live, work and play.

Cars don’t spend money, people do.

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